In 1995, Von Trier co-founded the cinema of Dogme 95, a collective of Danish filmmakers who agreed to make films that adhere to an anti-esthetic style which eschews artificial lighting, props, and requires sound to be recorded along with the images, as well as handheld cameras and location shooting. The Dogme 95 style was designed to free directors from the constraints of conventional filmmaking. What the films lack in polish they more than make up for in spontaneity, intimacy and realism. These films all have a documentary feel to them, as if the camera is eavesdropping on unsuspecting subjects.
The latest such film is the brilliant Danish import, “Open Hearts,” directed by Susanne Bier. The story is so riveting, and the acting so convincing, that I did not want the movie to end. I could have easily watched it for another hour. “Open Hearts” explores what happens to families when a catastrophe strikes. Cecelie and Joachim (Sonja Richter and Nikolaj Lie Kaas) are engaged to be married but their lives are changed forever when Joachim is hit by a car and paralyzed. The car’s driver, Marie and her husband Niels (Paprika Steen and Mads Mikkelson) are caught in the backlash. Marie urges Niels, a doctor at the hospital Joachim has been taken, to help counsel Cecelie. Joachim is very angry at his fate and shuts Cecilie out of his life, and she turns to Niels.
What makes the movie so compelling is the first-rate screenplay (by Anders Thomas Jensen), expert direction and superb acting. Sonja Richter, in a stunning screen debut, is exceptional as the fragile, despondent, fiery, and sexy blonde Cecilie. Marie, a formerly happily married woman, senses her man slipping away and does everything she can to try to hold onto him. Joachim slowly realizes that he misses Cecelie and calls her. And Niels gets sucked into Cecelie’s world and becomes obsessed with her. Finally, there is Stine, Marie and Niels’s daughter, a brash, angry teenager, who suspects her father’s affair. The film shows how ill equipped people often are to deal with tragedies. Fate deals each of the principals a devastating blow and they each deal with it differently.
The story unfolds with much honesty and feeling. Love takes several twists and turns and pulls the viewer deeper with each revelation. “Open Hearts” is emotionally raw and the pain of the characters is realistically portrayed, almost palpable, especially as the wife misses the touch of her husband. The dialogue is direct and often witty although the subject matter is very serious. Bier shows a comic touch that strengthens the story. She also uses jump cuts to accentuate the handheld camera and mixes in some extremely grainy close-ups to great effect. They give the film added texture and intimacy.
Like Von Trier’s powerful “Breaking the Waves” (1996), “Open Hearts” deals with a paralyzing accident on a young couple in love. In “Breaking the Waves” though, the paralyzed man encourages the woman (Emily Watson, in an unforgettable, Oscar-nominated debut performance) to have sex and tell him about it. In “Open Hearts,” when one of the nurses tells Joachim his fiance may be involved with another man, he takes steps to bring her back into his life.
This leads to the conclusion of the story, which offers no easy resolutions. Much is left up in the air. For me, the ambiguity of the ending made it more realistic and more resonant. I really felt like I knew these people and went through a lot with them. “Open Hearts,” in my opinion, is the first must-see film of 2003.Rating: A